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Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN N.P. Headshot

Sugar's Health Effects: Why You Should Look For Life's Sweetness Elsewhere

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I've seen women shed tears in my office when I tell them to stop eating sugar for a week.

Many of us have been brought up associating sugar with love and "being a good girl or boy," but it can also act like a drug in our brains. Sugar leads to the release of powerful chemicals like serotonin, beta-endorphin and the reward chemical dopamine. No wonder we can't live without it!

After reading Gary Taubes' article on sugar in The New York Times, I couldn't resist writing a post about sweets. I wholeheartedly agree with Taubes and the expert he cites, Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of endocrinology at the University of California, about the dangers of sugar and how much sugar we have come to consume in this country. It feels like everything these days has sugar or high fructose corn syrup in it -- meatballs, pickles, even cigarettes. And every year, we see more and more health issues related to obesity.

I don't believe that willpower is the reason for our obesity epidemic. It's more about how sugar affects our physiology. It not only makes us feel good, but it can confuse the brain into thinking we're still hungry even after we've had plenty to eat. When our food makes us more hungry instead of satisfied, of course we'll keep eating. We'll keep eating until we gain weight and get sick.

I think it's time we stopped being held hostage by the sugar industry. Our health is on the line.

It's a shame that sugar is so connected within many of us to feelings of love and positivity -- life without treats can seem empty. The good news is that we don't have to entirely give up sweetness in our lives to stay healthy and prevent disease. There are many ways to get at what's sweet in life -- and there are many natural sweeteners to experiment with.

Sugar's Mind-Body Experience

I remember taking my kids out to dinner one night before they had ever tasted sugar, and my son dipped his finger into a bowl of sugar that was out on the table. He looked at me in amazement and gasped, "Mommy! Can I have more?" We've all felt the instant pleasure associated with a sugar rush. In fact, Professor Bart Hoebel of Princeton has found in his research on rats that binging on sugar can lead to neurochemical changes that act the same as cocaine and nicotine in the brain.[1] Sugar can prompt the release of feel-good neurotransmitters, like serotonin and beta-endorphin. It triggers the "reward" chemical, dopamine, too, so eating sugar can provide a sensation of satisfaction and pleasure that's hard to replace.[2]

In the short-term, a high-sugar diet can lead to headaches, indigestion, joint pain and imbalanced gut flora. But it gets worse over time. A high-sugar diet over many years can feed inflammation, I believe, and therefore lead to health problems like heart disease, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes and even cancer. One of the first things I tell patients with cancer is to stop eating sugar.[3]

Fiber: Sugar's Natural Companion

Nature provides plenty of wonderful sweets to enjoy, but in most cases she protects us by adding fiber. Fiber can help level the spike in blood sugar and the subsequent spike in insulin caused by sugar intake. When I want something sweet, I try fruit first. Baked apples with a little bit of cinnamon are delicious. Spices like cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg or coconut oil can add sweet flavors without sugar.

What are Your Sugar Cravings Telling You?

A treat every once in a while is one thing, but relentless cravings are another. I like to tell my patients that cravings are messages from your body. Please don't ignore them or blindly give in to them. Instead, explore what it is your body is trying to tell you. Non-stop sugar cravings may mean something physiological is going on in your body.

There are many potential causes for craving sugar, including stress, hormonal fluctuations, insulin resistance, food sensitivities, systemic yeast, low serotonin levels and consumption of excessive acid-forming foods. For more on possible causes of sugar cravings, read my article, Do Sugar Cravings Have You by the Neck?

Another avenue to explore is assessing the sweetness in your life. This is a sensitive area for people, but I find many of us seek sugar to fill a void in our lives. The neurochemical pleasure and satisfaction we receive from sugar makes alternatives (other than drugs or alcohol) seem impossible to find, but thankfully they do exist. Finding rewarding work, a fulfilling relationship, some form of exercise, or a strong connection to a group or community can often affect our positive endorphins. For me, having a creative outlet is my bliss. I sew, make jewelry and have finally been able to sign up for dance lessons again now that my children are in college. Bliss in our lives truly can affect our physiology.

A Sweet Alternative

I continue to bake cakes and cookies on holidays and special occasions, but I alter my recipes to remove gluten and include more protein, and I try to use natural sweeteners that don't cause my blood sugar to skyrocket. Here are a few alternatives to experiment with:

Stevia: Stevia rebaudiana is an herb in the sunflower family that has been used at least since the 1800s. It is sweeter than sugar and has little effect on blood sugar, making it an excellent option for diabetics and those concerned with spikes in blood sugar.
Xylitol: Xylitol is a carbohydrate found in fibrous fruits and vegetables and is also made in our bodies during healthy metabolism. It has fewer calories than sugar, is slowly absorbed in the body and does not require insulin to process in the body.
Erythritol: Erythritol is a natural sugar alcohol that is found in fruit and fermented food. It doesn't taste quite as sweet as sugar, but has almost no calories (0.2 calories/ gram) and doesn't affect blood sugar. Unlike other sugar alcohols, erythritol is absorbed before hitting the large intestine and doesn't cause gastrointestinal side effects.
Other natural sweeteners include things like maple syrup, molasses, honey, date sugar, rice syrup and barley malt. These are always better choices than white sugar because they all contain more nutritional value. Keep in mind they still cause blood sugar to rise in the body.

Rest assured, life can be sweet without sugar! It may take some creativity and certainly some careful attention to food labels, but your overall health will benefit on almost every level. Stay informed about the food you consume and make a pact with yourself to find the sweetness in your life.

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My Favorite Chocolate Almond Cake

¼ cup unsalted butter, cubed
4 ounces unsweetened dark chocolate, finely chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped almonds
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon erythritol
½ teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 4-inch springform pan. Using a double boiler over medium heat, melt butter and chocolate, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and add almonds. Mix together egg yolks and sweetener. Pour egg mixture into chocolate, stirring well. Add almond extract. Whip egg whites until firm peaks form. Fold egg whites into chocolate mixture, being careful not to overmix. Pour mixture into springform pan. Bake 14-16 minutes or until cake is firm in the center. Remove from oven and cool on cooling rack. Cool completely before cutting. Serve with fresh berries.

Makes 6 servings.

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References:
[1] Avena, N, et al. 2007. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32, 20-39. http://www.foodaddictionsummit.org/docs/Hoebel-sugaraddiction.pdf.

MacPherson, K. 2008. Sugar can be addictive, Princeton scientist says. http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S22/88/56G31/index.xml.

[2] Rada, P, et al. 2005. Daily binging on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience, 134(3), 737-44. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15987666

[3] Cantley, L. 2002. The phosphoinositide 3-kinase pathway. Science, 296(5573), 1655-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12040186

Science Watch. 2010. Science Watch Interview with Lewis Cantley, Harvard Medical School. http://www.sciencewatch.com/inter/aut/2010/10-nov/10novCant/